Space, people, networks: exploring the relationship between built structures and seamless wireless communication infrastructures

In this thesis, I investigate wireless communication from an architectural perspective. I am using design prototypes to explore possibilities for interaction and designing with wirelessness in mind. The public primarily regards wireless networking technology as a technical infrastructure that should provide a seamless flow of information across a network of base stations, access points and mobile devices. From this perspective, wireless infrastructure is evaluated in terms of network availability and speed, and is continuously optimised. Researchers explored some other perspectives on wireless communication technology: they used computational spatial analysis to measure signal propagation in space. Some ethnographic studies explored its effect on the use of public space. Wireless connectivity was also explored through the philosophical framework of radical empiricism. All this points to the fact that wireless network infrastructure is a complex topic, spanning multiple fields of expertise and interest (engineering, architecture, urban studies but also sociology and philosophy). It is rarely explored from a plural perspective, as each study typically focuses on the one aspect within its expertise. I propose a more complex view of wireless connectivity, encompassing these different perspectives through an intellectual framework that is based on the notion of architecturality. Architecturality, a property common to all architecture but exceeding the limits of built artefacts, is a measure of the effect something has on the experience of space. Through the lens of the built environment, I expose the complex transactions that take place between networks, people and space. In order to evaluate architecturality of wireless communication signals, I conducted a series of practical design experiments, involving people and interactive installations, and using data gathered from mobile devices and wireless access points. The design of these experiments relies on the principles described by human-computer interaction (HCI) researchers as seamful design. Seamful design reveals underlying structures and relationships behind what appears as a utilitarian infrastructure. The design experiments contribute to the discussion on the use of design artefacts in practice-based research methodologies, thus challenging the different agents of knowledge production and the superiority of established research traditions. The insights gained from this complex examination of wireless networks are important for architectural design, as a way to account more adequately for signal propagation through buildings. The experience of internalising wireless networks in the process of design engenders a designer’s sensitivity towards the presence of wireless communications in space. This sensitivity, similar to the one we have for the distribution of natural and artificial lighting, will be needed in the ever more challenging design of the built environment. The sensible designer can account for, and envision, more dynamic environments that are able to accommodate change and information in completely new ways.

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